By Polly Shulman, published on July 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
For years, Fox Television has infiltrated a family by the name of Simpson. We've watched Homer and Marge and their 2.3 children—Bart, Lisa and baby Maggie—dream big and lose bigger, make up and make out, and blow off steam and responsibilities. (That last is particularly dangerous when it happens at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where Homer works as a technical supervisor, or a supervising technician—or is it the safety inspector?)
We've cheered at noble gestures, such as when Marge rescued her family from a herd of stampeding rhinoceroses, or when Homer moonlighted as a department store Santa so he could buy his children presents. And we've hung our heads during the low points, like when Homer vomited in the bushes after he made Marge feed him nachos so he could use his hands to play a video game. ("Come on," he insists when she balks, "you're always saying we should do things as a couple.") We see ourselves mirrored in them, even if the mirror is borrowed from the fun house.
The gender roles at first appear hackneyed: Homer is the ur-guy for whom what is lacking in brains is made up for in belly; and Marge is the mom we never had, or wish we never had, or maybe the mom we fear we're turning into. She cooks, she cleans, she nags; she takes her humiliated, reeking, semipenitent husband to her bosom with a tube-lipped smooch and a gravelly, "Aw, Homie!" But the ironic distance from which we see this couple adds substance. When Homer's behavior spotlights the chasm between the ideal father and the dumb cluck who tries to fill that role, Ozzie and Harriet-type ideals are called into question. Similarly, through her frequent rebellions Marge turns the image of the long-suffering wife on its head.
Indeed, Marge tells her daughter, "Marriage is a beautiful thing. But it's also a constant battle for moral superiority." And it's a battle Marge is winning. She towers over her husband ethically and intellectually (not to mention follicularly). Homer may always get his way, but that's mostly because Marge allows him to think he has done so. She's the woman behind the throne. And like wives in the 1850s and the 1950s, she takes care not to let her husband know how much better she is at the business of living.
The bad boy-good girl split continues with a vengeance in the younger generation—as does the dumb guy-brainy lady split. Bart is forever planting cherry bombs in school toilets, while Lisa gives herself homework assignments on snow days. The intellectual divide between Lisa and Bart is even greater than that between their parents. Unlike her mother, though, Lisa never hides her brains from the men in her life—and her father, at least, loves her all the more for it. If we're drawn to Homer and Marge because they remind us of the intellectual stalemate reached by husbands and wives in generations past, we love Lisa for demonstrating that women don't need to hide their ambitions to be loved.
Their iconic sex roles notwithstanding, for the Simpsons exceptions that prove the rule are the rule, rather than the exception. They may challenge stereotypes and convention but the challenges rarely last beyond a single show. Marge and Homer met during one of these anomalies, when Marge got detention back in high school for burning her bra. Detention was, of course, Homer's home away from home. Such exceptional episodes often have feminist overtones, as when a girls' night out takes on Thelma-and-Louise dimensions. "I always knew someday Mom would rise up and cast off the shackles of our male oppressors," Lisa exclaims triumphantly. ("Aw, shut your yap!" responds Bart.) But just as Homer always returns to Marge with his tail between his legs, Marge's flirtations with empowerment always land her back in the kitchen, leaving the potential for real rebellion to Lisa—the character female viewers are most likely to identify with.
The Simpsons may make the network a bundle, but the family doesn't see a penny of it. Homer still toils at the power plant, while Marge keeps house and cares for the youngsters with nary a nanny—just the occasional $8-a-night downsized corporate attorney to help her baby-sit.
Homer funds his necessary luxuries, such as six-packs of Duff or a red SUV, by smashing piggy banks or cashing in 401(k)s. And like many Americans, he and Marge have trouble with rising health-care costs: Budgetary constraints forced Homer to forgo lifesaving surgery (for snoring; the life threatened by his condition was Marge's).
If the Simpsons are not compensated financially, why do they let us tune in? Their popularity has earned them eternal youth (or, in the case of Homer, eternal immaturity). But the greatest reward may be sexual. The couple, it turns out, have a strong exhibitionist streak. "The fear of getting caught is kind of a turn on," Marge tells Homer when a chambermaid walks in on their 11th anniversary celebration at a bed-and-breakfast. "There's the dirty girl I married!" coos Homer. It may not take the eyes of millions of viewers to make Homer and Marge get busy, but it clearly doesn't hurt.
If this is the typical American marriage, then as a nation we're doing pretty well in the sack—not to mention the hayloft, the hot-air balloon and the windmill at the miniature golf course. Being married to Marge, says Homer, "is like being married to my best friend—and he lets me feel his boobs." Perhaps the most important lesson the couple has to offer is this: You can overcome your differences and love one another. Particularly if the world is watching.